This month's column was prompted by a recent event reported to me by my wife. On an afternoon outing, she happened upon a traffic jam at the scene of a two-car motor vehicle crash. Noon traffic down here in Florida can be just as grid-locked as 5:00 p.m. traffic in New York City. That day, a blocked intersection in balmy southwest Florida proved to be a little trying.
According to my wife, this episode was made even more time-consuming by a not-so-attentive traffic officer. She appeared to be completely overwhelmed by the volume of cars trying to maneuver through the intersection. I recognize that my lovely wife is an incredible teacher, but I also understand that she may not understand all the subtle and intricate machinations that go into traffic management. As such, I took her comments with a grain of Florida sea salt. As she related the story further, however, she did seem to have a pretty good handle on what the apparent problem was at this major four-way intersection.
According to her, the tow truck had not yet arrived, but the injured had already been attended to and taken away. Both cars were blocking some portions of the travel lanes. A large hindrance to the traffic cop's attempts was the signal lights were still in normal operational mode they had not been put on flashing red for all four directions.
The young deputy's short stature only added to the problem, as she wasn't easily seen by all approaching motorists. The still-functioning traffic light, on the other hand, was very visible. In what can only be described as a Wallenda-wannabe trying to tightrope over Niagara Falls, the deputy was having a devil of a time keeping vehicles from following the traffic lights instead of proceeding through on her commands.
Reports from the front indicated that a considerable amount of the deputy's time was spent on mad 20-yard dashes from one vehicle to another, admonishing each to not enter the intersection after a safe stop-and-go, but only proceed on her signal. The real irony here is that this futile attempt at traffic management was being witnessed and observed by another deputy (an older male) from the sidelines. Needless to say, the situation appeared hopeless. While the young deputy was busy tongue-lashing one driver, another would stop, look both ways and proceed through, only to be chased by the deputy after doing so. Same went for the drivers who moved on the steady green.
This continued for a good seven to eight minutes until my lovely wife got through the intersection unscathed. At the risk of being called biased because I have taken my wife's version as factual, I have on many occasions seen this same type of conduct by traffic officers (city and county cops) at more than a few accident scenes. (Not so much with the Florida Highway Patrol troopers who always seem to have their fingers on the pulse of traffic management.)
Maybe there's a shortage of traffic box keys here in southwest Florida, or perhaps the second officer was a field training officer observing the younger female deputy working her way through the Daily Observation Reports, but competent traffic management seems to be a dying art down here.
So, I'm going to regress just a little to my days on the road "in the bag" and augment my suggestions with some up-to-date info from some of the still-active street dogs who spend a lot of time in the sights and crosshairs of cell phone soldiers, unconscious drivers and text-messaging teens who consider driving a car their secondary function.
First, use your equipment all of it. Wear your bright orange or ANSI-green glo-vest all the time, even during daylight hours. Sure, it's ugly, but this is no time to make a fashion statement.
Next, use your flashlight with the orange cone attached. During evening scenes turn the flashlight on. You want to be seen: That's the intent of standing in the intersection.
You also want to be heard. I'm not sure when whistles went out of style, but down here they appear to be nothing more than decoration, like your seniority or marksmanship pins. I see more Oakleys on the faces of traffic officers than I do whistles. Whistles are great attention getters especially for smaller-statured officers. Use yours. Remember: Use one long blast to stop all traffic and two short blasts to get drivers started again.
Next, remember light control. Just like in nighttime tactical situations, you can control the light at traffic scenes. Keep in mind if you're being illuminated from the front by your squad's headlights or spotlight, to the opposing driver you will be silhouetted or back-lit. It's probably best to park your vehicle well off the road; just use your yellow overheads and four ways, and try to use the streetlights to illuminate your position. Your glo-vest and flashlight will be your best tools. Use the on/off button to direct your drivers to where you want them to go: on for the forward directional swing, off during the back swing to avoid confusion.
Last, speaking of confusion, expect unconscious drivers. I believe in the "dumbing down of society" theory. I taught college for a few years after my Calibre Press days. My wife is a teacher. We both agree that a lot of people today, particularly the age group between 16 and 21, are inattentive, very easily distracted or just plain unconscious.
So, traffic officers must assume that the motoring public, including older drivers, are operating on a system that devotes 90 percent of their in-car driving time to their CD player, GPS, cell phone, coffee or newspaper; and that the appearance of either emergency lights, a traffic cop, highway flares or bright orange cones will only serve to short-circuit their brains. Expect it. In fact, plan for it.
Or put another way, if the average 21st Century driver can negotiate this scene with the normal traffic signal cycle in operation, let 'em go ahead. Put on your four-ways, get off to the side of the road and monitor the activity.
However, if the scene absolutely requires police traffic intervention, put the traffic signals on flashing red for all directions to avoid any confusion, and your reflective vest on. Then, get out your whistle and cone-equipped flashlight before you venture into the vortex of today's unconscious drivers. Assess the situation and have a plan when you walk into that intersection.
Until next month, stay safe!